Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Author Barbara D'Amato

I met Barbara D’Amato at the Malice Domestic conference two years ago. For such a prodigious writer, who has served as the president for the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, her demeanor was understated and quiet, which brought me to the conclusion that you have to watch out for quiet writers. They save their energy for writing.

EBD: Over the past thirty years, twenty-two of your books have been published, an impressive record. And yet, between 1981 and 1990 none was published. This hiatus seems daunting. What happened?

BD: Yes, I couldn't get anything published for seven years after the second book. Ace/Charter decided to drop mysteries and I couldn't sell anywhere else. In 1988, On My Honor was published by Pinnacle under the name Malacai Black. But seven years and no sale was, as you say, daunting.

EBD: Twenty of your books were published within the last nineteen years, and I noticed on your website that you’ve written musical plays. Do you concentrate on one book at a time, or do you juggle projects?

BD: I've never been able to split focus. It's always one book at a time.

EBD: During this time, you were also president of MWA and SinC. Do you ever take a vacation?

BD: I'm not a lie-on-a-beach person. But once a year I take my granddaughter to New York. We go on the train and she gets an upper berth, which was thrilling to her when she was little. We see two plays and come home. I go to two or three mystery conventions every year and consider those a vacation.

EBD: During the 1990s, you concentrated on writing two mystery series, the Cat Marsala and the Chicago Police series. In this decade, you’ve written stand-alones. Why the change to one-off thrillers?

BD: Scribner dropped the Cat Marsala series when my editor retired, so that was that. The stand-alones came about because I get interested in some specific topic. A few years ago, I started to look into the use of hallucinogens in ancient religions, and after a while, it became my new book, Other Eyes.

EBD: Your publishing record indicates that stand-alone thrillers take a lot of research. I suspect you like research. Is that statement true, and if so why?

BD: Finding out new stuff freshens my outlook. It seems to me I would write dull stories if I only wrote about things I already knew.

EBD: To me, many thrillers are based on cabal theory, although in your book the government is involved as well. Ian Rankin has explored the complex relationship between the underworld and what he calls the “overworld.” What’s your opinion on the reality of those concepts or is it all just great fodder for fiction?

BD: What we see on a daily basis is pretty superficial. As to cabals, we all feel small compared to the big world, to government, to global corporations. Huge multinationals are quite recent, and so they are interesting.

EBD: What is the hook of Other Eyes?

BD: Other Eyes is about a forensic archaeologist, Blue Eriksen. She became famous, much to her amazement, for a scholarly book about goddesses in ancient religions. In the course of researching that book, she accumulated a lot of data on the use of hallucinogens in the early religions. Coming to believe that one substance, psilocybin, derived from a mushroom, can prevent or cure drug addiction, she is working and publishing in the area. The multinational that controls drug distribution and pricing worldwide like OPEC does oil [it is nicknamed DOPEC in the book] has sent a man to kill her.

EBD: What is Blue’s weakness?

BD: Good question. Her Achilles heel in the book--in a good way--is that, because of the death of her husband, she has to take her year-old son with her everywhere on her digs. I had to find safe food for him in Anatolia and Peru, babysitters for the few times she actually had to leave him for a couple of hours, games and entertainment--

EBD: You start the book in present day, give your readers glimpses of life 20,000 years ago, and then bring them back to present. Has man really evolved?

BD: People who know more than I say that if a baby born twenty thousand years ago could be placed in a modern home he could grow up to fly a 747. Physically humans haven't changed much. And one of the lessons of archaeology is that people are much the same all over the planet and at all times. I do think we've made progress in social consciousness--tolerance of our neighbors, tolerance of other religions.

EBD: I’m always interested in cause and effect in writer’s crafting of a book, even in the practical sense. The book is set in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Peru and Turkey. Have you traveled to Peru and Turkey specifically for the book, or did you use those settings because you already had traveled to those places?

BD: Oh, gee. I want SO much to say I travelled there. But I didn't. I used the Internet, of course, but I also have a wide group of friends who helped, like the archaeologist [and mystery writer] Sarah Wisseman. My doctor traveled in Turkey and had many photos to show me. And there were many, many more helpful sources.

EBD: One line from the book that sticks with me is the old adage; people hear only what they want to hear. Do you think naiveté is purely the result lack of experience or do we all have our own uniquely designed ignorance?

BD: Yes, and partly that not one of us has the time to evaluate all the issues that come up. You simply can't pay attention to everything every day. So to some extent you need your preconceptions. But still you should question as much as you can.

EBD: Did you have a specific message or purpose in writing this book?

BD: If there's a message I hope it is that people are all much the same.

EBD: The title, Other Eyes, is a bit baffling. Is perspective a factor in your choice of title?

BD: In a way. Other times, other views, other eyes, but all human.

EBD: In 2000, your book, The Doctor, The Murder, The Mystery: The True Story of the Dr. John Branion Murder Case was published. How did a fiction writer end up writing a true crime novel?

BD: Dr. Branion's wife had come to my husband, Tony, who is a law professor. Tony had been involved in getting a man out of a prison in Mexico and Shirley Branion hoped Tony could free her husband. But Dr. Branion was in prison in this country and the situation was very different. I started to research the case because Branion was clearly innocent and we hoped the facts could free him.

EBD: You’ve been published by Noble Press, Five Star, Charter, Ace, Scribner, and now Forge for the last ten years or so. Was there a choice? Does it pay an author to shop publishers and switch every now and again? Or is having an established relationship with one publisher better?

BD: Actually, there was never a choice. Noble did only non-fiction, so they published the Branion book. Five Star reprinted On My Honor. Ace/Charter stopped publishing mysteries. And so it goes.

EBD: Sub, pasta or pizza, which is your preference?

BD: Can I have all three? But if you force me to choose, a nice three-cheese lasagna would do splendidly.

If you have any questions about Barbara’s career or her books, please post a comment. For further information on Barbara, go to Buy Other Eyes at Amazon.


Warren Bull said...

Barbara, I admire your persistence and your talents. I hope you keep exploring the world through your work for a very long time.

Pauline Alldred said...

Your flexibility in moving to different publishers, different places, and different cultures is truly amazing. I like your premise for your latest book, that humans are much the same in every time and every place. I look forward to reading your latest.

E. B. Davis said...

I enjoy Barbara's writing. Ten years ago, I was reading her "Cat" novels and enjoying them as well. That series ended, unfortunately. Cat, the main character, was a feature writer, a profession in which she explored various industries.(Reading them was like going on school field trips.)Now I understand that the series enabled Barbara to research to her heart's delight. Thanks for the interview, Barbara. Your career inspires.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Warren, Psuline, and E.B., thank you for all your good words. Warren, I'm not sure I was as much persistent as desperate. It's pretty terrifying to lose a publisher and not know where the next will come from. But the research, as E.B. notes, is a whole lot of fun. And Pauline, yes, one of the most uplifting things about reading archaeolgy is the sense that we are all the same.